Calvin contra Rome on Scripture (Part 3)
"Thirdly," Calvin writes in description of Rome's teaching on Scripture, "repudiating all other versions [of Scripture] whatsoever, they retain the Vulgate only, and order it to be authentic." Thus Calvin summarizes the following words from the Council of Trent:
[This] Holy Council -- considering that no small utility may accrue to the Church of God, if it be made known which out of all the Latin editions, now in circulation, of the sacred books, is to be held as authentic -- ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many years, has been approved of in the Church, be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.
The Latin edition of the Bible thus approved and privileged by Trent was that which Jerome produced in the late fourth century. Jerome's Latin Bible -- the Vulgate -- was rather controversial in its own time because Jerome chose to translate the Old Testament into Latin from the Hebrew Scriptures rather than the received Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint). But, whatever qualms initially existed regarding Jerome's conviction that Scripture should be translated from its original languages rather than other translations, Jerome's Vulgate eventually became the Church's standard version of Scripture. As knowledge of Greek and Hebrew faded in Western Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the influx of Germanic tribes, few biblical scholars cared enough -- or were, for that matter, competent -- to compare the Vulgate's rendering of Scripture to surviving manuscripts of the Bible in Greek and Hebrew, those languages in which Scripture was originally penned.
But late-medieval Europe witnessed a rebirth of interest in the languages of antiquity and, correspondingly, ancient texts. Western European scholars re-learned Greek and Hebrew, and so stood equipped to evaluate Jerome's translation of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures into Latin. In 1516, the prince of humanist scholars Desiderius Erasmus produced a new edition of the New Testament in Greek, having compared all the Greek manuscripts available to him in order to adjudicate textual variants and recover, as closely as possible, the original words of Scripture. In a parallel column in the same work, Erasmus offered a new Latin translation of the Bible based upon the Greek -- a Latin translation which highlighted quite a few points at which Jerome's translation was significantly flawed.
By the time that the Council of Trent got around to addressing the doctrine of Scripture in 1546, quite a few scholars had followed Erasmus's lead. They had, in other words, studied the Bible in Greek and/or Hebrew, highlighted flaws in Jerome's Latin translation of the Bible, and offered superior translations in Latin or in vernacular languages (German, English, etc.).
The Roman Catholic fathers at Trent obviously found it rather unsettling that intelligent and highly skilled persons were consulting Scripture in its original languages, finding the Vulgate's translation of Scripture in its original languages wanting, and offering their own (perhaps competing) translations of the text. A reasonable response to such discomfort might have been the establishment of an ecclesiastical body to offer an approved, corporate critique of Jerome's translation and improved translation of the Bible. Calvin expected the Romanists to "make some show" at least, "of executing a new version," even if they assigned the task to "sworn adherents" of their own corrupt doctrine. Instead, Trent adopted the decidedly un-reasonable approach of authorizing Jerome's unquestionably flawed translation of the Bible over all would-be competitors.
This, of course, was a serious blow to biblical scholarship of the period, and one that was certain to raise the humanist hackles of Protestant and Roman Catholic intellectuals alike. Calvin describes Trent's "error" as "gross" and its "edict" as "barbarous." "Those," he writes, "who are acquainted with the [biblical] languages perceive that this version [i.e., the Vulgate] teems with innumerable errors, and this they make manifest by the clearest evidence." Nevertheless "the Fathers of Trent contend that although the learned thus draw the pure liquor from the very fountain [i.e., study Scripture in its original languages] and convict the infallible Vulgate of falsehood, they are not to be listed to."
Calvin offers numerous examples of mis-translation on the part of the Vulgate, particularly with regard to its rendering of the Old Testament, which proceeded from Jerome's somewhat dubious knowledge of biblical Hebrew. Jerome's failures in translation hardly need be rehearsed here; they are, just as Calvin noted, obvious to any and all who compare the original Hebrew to Jerome's Latin Bible. Perhaps the most famous of doubtful translations offered by Jerome is discovered in his description of Moses's "face" (faciem) as "horned" (cornutam) as the Prophet descended Mount Sinai (Ex. 34.29). Medieval and early modern artists read Jerome's description of Moses's "horned face" rather literally, and accordingly gave Moses horns in their artistic depictions of him:
One could, perhaps, place blame for the tradition of giving Moses' horns on medieval mis-interpreters of Jerome rather than Jerome himself. There are, however, plenty of passages in the Vulgate where Jerome cannot be so easily excused. So, for instance, in Psalm 2, a Messianic/Kingship Psalm where the Psalmist exhorts his hearers to "Kiss the Son," Jerome's translation of the Hebrew had Adprehendite disciplinam ("Embrace discipline"). "The former is clearly correct," Calvin observes. The former, in other words, clearly communicates what one finds in the Hebrew text. So "why," Calvin asks, "should the latter be held the more authentic?"
Trent's decision to authenticate the Vulgate translation of the Bible isn't as curious as it seems upon the surface if one remembers the historical circumstances surrounding the Council's meeting. Rome clearly felt threatened by persons who challenged traditional dogmas on the basis of Scripture's original words, and decided to stop the mouths of such persons by taking Scripture in its original languages (or superior translations) from their hands and replacing it with a text which was less threatening since it was familiar to them, and could -- following well-worn patterns of argument -- be more easily turned to the defense of traditional, albeit ultimately unbiblical, doctrines. Of course, purely reactionary measures, such as this decision by Trent was, rarely produce sound practice or doctrine. This particular move on the part of Trent -- rejecting every Latin translation of Scripture but the Vulgate (no matter its obvious flaws) -- was at best obscurantist, at worst completely ludicrous. Indeed, Trent essentially adopted a position akin to that of twentieth-century fundamentalists who argue -- if it can be called argument -- that the King James Version of the English Bible is divinely inspired and must, therefore, reign supreme over other (better) translations of Scripture.
In Calvin's concluding words: "were this edict of the Council sanctioned, the simple effect would be that the Fathers of Trent would make the world look with their eyes open, and yet not see the light presented to them."
Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.